Once upon a time, everything was right in the world. It was the distant year of 2005, and Vincenzo D'Orsi, vice president of the World Bank, attended a conference to discuss the global economy. Everything was wonderful, truly:
Even with the chaos of September in the air, the meetings were fine. Everyone was fine. What was there to say, after all? In Latin America, things were going well, more or less. The Bank's programs, in particular—Vincenzo deserved zero credit for it, truly—were going swimmingly. No one really deserved credit. Politics had matured, capitalism was working. Stability had taken hold and the emerging markets were now actually emerging.
"It's almost on autopilot," he said to halfhearted chuckles from the crowd.
D'Orsi is the main character of local author Peter Mountford's second novel, The Dismal Science (Tin House Books, $15.95), and he's partly right and partly wrong in that last sentence. The world in 2005, when George W. Bush was at the height of his power, did seem to be operating on autopilot. Money was flowing upward, and the middle class was resting comfortably on a gigantic balloon inflated with steaming hot credit. D'Orsi is a perfect symbol for the time: Those in charge must've been pleased with themselves, but, if they were smart, also slightly uneasy about the fact that everything was running relatively smoothly.
Of course, it now seems obvious that the whole world was hurtling toward the global financial collapse of 2008 and all the unrest that followed. And D'Orsi, on some level, understands that he's about to come crashing to the ground in a fabulous scandal, too. But when the end does come for him, even he's surprised by the shape that it takes—a small argument with an annoying coworker that somehow becomes an international incident when he spitefully leaks the particulars to a friend who writes for the Washington Post.
The Dismal Science is the story of a man on the downward slope of middle age who at once participates in his own self-destruction and stands off to the side, staring, puzzled, as it happens. D'Orsi is a complicated, likable figure, a ridiculously wealthy man—when facing unemployment, he doesn't ever once worry about how he's going to make do—who understands that his work at the World Bank helps and hurts people around the globe, and who comforts himself by believing that he's helping more than he hurts.
Mountford has put himself in an unenviable position with this book: He's not justifying the globalists who support policies that make the wealthy even wealthier, but he understands that the argument isn't as cut-and-dried as an argumentative Occupy protester might have you believe. Here, D'Orsi argues with a Peruvian representative who complains that the World Bank doesn't do enough to help the very poor of his nation:
"For many thousands of years, the world has been moving from a barbaric and brutal place filled with people who roam the woods with blades and clubs, to a place where people pull four-course meals from their freezer and zap them in a microwave. Is this sad? Yes, it is sad. It is tragic! Really! We have lost our souls, and I believe this. Is it beautiful, too? Yes, it is beautiful. Babies don't die from simple illnesses, and that is good... So these people in the Amazon are going to do horrible work for Exxon for a generation or two. They might ruin that part of the jungle. Yes. They might be miserable. Yes. But they might not be miserable, too. It doesn't matter. And yes, it does matter. We lose and we win."
That's practically a Tolstoyan rant right there, a man who's willing to write off an entire "generation or two" of human beings but who beautifully celebrates the life of a single baby, who's lofty enough to see that the human race is gradually progressing toward the good but who's snobbish enough to backhandedly disparage the artlessness of a frozen dinner. Mountford gives D'Orsi a life full of deep-seated tragedy (one could argue that all D'Orsi's actions in The Dismal Science are displays of grieving for his dearly departed wife) and a banal sort of triumph. D'Orsi is at once the butt of the joke and the prankster, a complicated man playing a complicated game that could have dramatic repercussions for the entire World Bank.
Despite its very particular temporal setting, The Dismal Science is very much a novel for right now, the story of a rich white man who understands that the world is ready to pass rich white men by and who isn't sad about that—D'Orsi even seems happy to see a new generation tackling the same questions he's wrestled with his whole life—but who knows that the world isn't as simple as the angry young protesters believe it to be. He's an unforgettable character, and The Dismal Science is a phenomenal book.